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The Remnants of an Ancient Culture Appear - Part 1 of 2

Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve is a special place. The state-owned tract of property lies along the beautiful salt marsh of the intracoastal waterway just north of St. Augustine, Florida. The ancient midden mounds of shells interspersed among the shade of the maritime oak hammocks provide a glimpse into the lives of the long forgotten people that graced the land before European settlement. The mounds are remnants of the Timucua people, who used the waterways as their main food source. They piled the remains of shellfish, bones, pottery and other items that they no longer needed into mounds which slowly grew over time into large structures. Mounds were also constructed to bury the dead. Over the centuries, the land now designated as the Reserve has had most of these discovered sites surveyed and designated as protected historical resources because of their scarcity.

The property consists of several miles of beaches and sand dunes that are home to many ecologically valuable plants and animals. When you stand atop the boardwalks that rise over the crest of the dunes toward the open ocean, you can see shades of pink, grey and white sand for miles. As you may have guessed, even the coastal dunes need fire from time to time. The thick palmettos, short scraggly oaks, cactus, and even the sea oats are dependent upon fire in one way or another.

Planning a burn in the area is no simple task. Between the wispy sands of the dunes and the waterway lies one of the busiest stretches of roads in North Florida - the scenic A1A highway. Motorists constantly ignore the speed limit as they pass beyond the high-rise condos and oceanfront homes between Ponte Vedra Beach and Vilano Beach. Today, it is a far cry from the quiet coastal shores of a bygone era. Many thousands of people enjoy the excellent fishing opportunities at the man-made Lake Ponte Vedra on the area. The additional nature-based recreation activities offered on the undeveloped peninsula located between the lake and the intracoastal are second to none. Successfully managing the smoke from a fire can be a daunting task because of the roads, expensive homes, and the sheer number of people present on any given day.

Back in 2013, I was a part of the small staff managing the area. One of the most important things we were tasked with was to ensure that the threat of wildfire for the multi-million dollar homes (which incidentally were plopped right in the middle of a coastal fire-adapted landscape) was minimized to the greatest extent possible. Our main method was mowing and disking 100-foot wide fire lines that bisected the area to slow any advancing threat if it should arise. Occasionally, when good weather presented itself, our park ranger in charge of operations would get our small crew together to conduct the risky business of starting a prescribed burn in the high-intensity flashy fuels known as coastal strand, or coastal scrub. These wider-than-normal fire lines were critical.


One morning after the crew briefing for a planned burn, we proceeded to break into two teams in order to attempt a burn on a long rectangular stretch of this coastal strand. I was given the task of igniting on foot among the thick vegetation on the northernmost team. After confirming the behavior of the test fire, I was instructed to begin lighting inside the burn area with one solid strip of fire. As I walked slowly inward from the wide fire line, my hand held drip torch dropped down a line of flame about 10 yards long behind me. When I stopped and turned around, I watched as the flame lengths immediately grew to more than 15 feet in height. The loud crackling and roar of the fire was a sight to behold. Over the radio came "Ok Cully, go ahead and pull up another strip". Onward I stepped. Again the flames grew with a whoosh that generated some serious heat.

Another ignitor had begun walking parallel to me with the same results. I watched as the same wave of fire reached into the sky behind the other crew member. Over the radio came "All crew, please stop igniting. We need to put it out. Hey Rick, bring that bulldozer over here." I immediately heard the machine rumbling towards us, so I fell back to the line to wait for instructions.

Ignition atop the dunes, Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve

Circa 2013.

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